Fiction cannot be translated word for word - Saman Athaudahetti | Sunday Observer

Fiction cannot be translated word for word - Saman Athaudahetti

13 September, 2020

Saman Athaudahetti is a veteran travel writer, radio journalist, translator and program presenter. His latest translation, third one in Sinhala, Wasantha Kunatuwa published by Fast Publishing was launched recently. The Sunday Observer discussed with him his new translation work and literary translations in Sri Lanka. Athaudahetti won the Vidyodaya literary award for the best newspaper column book in 2011 for Sonduru Serisara -Hanamichiya Dige’.


Q: Could you explain your latest translation?

A. The original book of this translation is Sensei No Kaban, the second novel of Japanese writer Hiromi Kawakami. It was first published in 2011 and won the Tanisaki award, the most prestigious award in Japan in 2012. The book was translated into many languages, including English, French, Spanish, Italy and Dutch. However, there are two English translations of this book, one The Briefcase and other as Strange Weather in Tokyo, both by Alison Markin Powel, an American writer. My translation is based on the English book.

Q: This book is based on the Post World War 11 era?

A. After the Second World War, Japan had to suffer a lot. It collapsed socially, economically, culturally and spiritually. However, after the San Francisco Summit where Sri Lanka proposed a resolution to pardon Japan, the Japanese began to work hard to develop the country. As a result, by the ‘70s, Japan has overcome its worst condition and emerged as a strong country. A new social order, a new way of life and a new value system were established in Japan. The novel is based on this period.

Q: There is a subtle love story of an old teacher and his former student in this novel. Why did you select it to translate into Sinhala?

A. The protagonist of the novel is 36-year-old woman Tsukiko who accidentally encounters his old teacher at Isakaya, a Japanese restaurant after few decades from her graduation. Then there start a relationship between them which is subject to change as time went by. I was impressed by this subtle love story.

I was first attracted to Japan after reading Ediriweera Sarachchandra’s two novels, Malagiya Aththo and Malawunge Awurudu daa. Though I read many Japanese novels and novels which have Japan as a setting, Sensei No Kaban (Strange Weather in Tokyo) is the one which gave me a feeling akin to Sarachchandra’s two novels. I also have had the experiences similar to the ones described in Sensei No Kaban. But it is not a literary experimentation, such as Sarachchandra’s two books.

Q: Have you met Hiromi Kawakami, the author of the book?

A. No. But she knows about my translation project as my publisher contacted her to obtain the publisher’s permission to translate it.

Q: When did you first read the book to translate?

A. I first purchased the book (English Translation) from a bookshop in Japan at the end of 2019. But I read it during Covid-19 curfew when I was stuck at home. I started to translate it as soon as I read it. I completed the translation work within two or three months.

Q: What were the challenges that you faced when you translated the book?

A. The characters of the novel are complicated. Each character has a separate identity. The author presents many food items and recipes with the events of the novel - she does this when she needs to highlight those situations. I had to exert extra effort in translating these things. Incidentally, those were the difficulties that Alison Markin Powel, the English translator of Sensei No Kaban, also faced. Umali Thilakarathne, a prominent actress and a student in Japan, helped me to solve these issues, and sometimes I had to include footnotes to present a clear picture of the circumstances.

Q: Sinhala readers know the Japanese life by the novels of Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima, Tadashi Noguchi and Akuthagawa. We have a general picture about the Japanese novel?

A. Yes, but that picture was given by our translators or their choices. We cannot give a specific picture of the Japanese novel, because Japan has many good novels and good novelists. We know about Haruki Murakami, a Japanese postmodern novelist, but his novel is another genre of Japanese novel.

Yukio Mishima produces another genre. The most important factor is that with their genres, they create a market in the world literature. Though we have a rich Sinhala literature, we are unable to produce a market in the world arena.

Q: Why is it so?

A. First, we have no good English translators to introduce our books to the world. We don’t have good original writers. In Japan, most authors are writing in Japanese, not in English. But because of their translators, they present their literature to the world. The other thing is that we have no standard publishers to compete with the world. Our printing quality is low compared to the international standards.

Q: Do you think that we have writers or fictions to suit the international standard?

A. Yes, definitely. Let us take a novel, Golu Hadawatha by Karunasena Jayalath. If we had had good English translators, this book should have gone to the international market. There are other writers and books as well that should go to the world literature. However, good books and authors are rare in Sri Lanka.

Q: What is your art of translation?

A. I don’t translate word for word. I try to translate the feelings of the original work, and try to draw the original picture, depicting the original colour, tone, sense, rhythm and the hidden meanings.

A fiction cannot be translated word for word. Language fluency or wide vocabulary is also important in literary translations, but it is not the only factor for a good translation. First, a translator has to enter the original book with feelings.

Then, you are aware of the original culture, its socio-political background and its environment. For this, a translator has to study the book as well as its author.

Q: Your views on abridged editions of the novels?

A. Abridged editions are accepted. Not only abridged translations, but also abridged originals are present in the world. For instance, David Copperfield by Charles Dickens can be seen in both versions. Only the purpose is different in them.

I don’t reject the abridged editions. The problem in Sri Lanka is that we don’t mention whether the book is an abridged or not in its translation.

Q: Sometimes we see more than one translation of the same book?

A.Yes. It is good, because then we can select the best one. For instance, Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky was translated into Sinhala by Munidasa Senarath Yapa as well as by Cyril C. Perera. There are more than one Sinhala translations of Anna Keranina by Tolstoy.

Q: You have your original creations as well as translations. Which one is more difficult?

A. Both are the same for me, because I enjoy both mediums when I write.

Q: Haven’t you associated writers during your travels?

A. No. I seldom meet writers during my travels. But I frequently visited Martin Wickramasinghe when I stayed close to Kirimandala Mawatha in Narahenpita where Wickramasinghe lived. Those days, Wickramasinghe’s Madol Doowa and some of his short stories were adapted as radio dramas in which I played some roles.

I met Prof. Sarachchandra when he came to the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) for programs, such as Shasthreeya Sangahaya.

We were fortunate to associate artistes, such as Sarachchandra, Manawasinghe, Mahagama Sekara, Madawala S. Rathnayake, Amaradewa, Dayananda Gunawardhane, Sunanda Mahendra, Sugathapala de Silva and Premakeerthi de Alwis.

Q: During the 50s, ‘60’s and ‘70s, we could identify a high art tradition at the SLBC?

A. Absolutely. It’s a memorable and entertaining period from which we learned everything. The SLBC was like a university. I was ten years old when I first came to the SLBC.

I was selected to the Lama Pitiya and other children’s programs. Subsequently, I joined various art programs, such as Guwanviduli Ranga Mandala (a radio drama), Keti Kathawa as a child artiste.

Q: How did you get into the habit of reading?

A. I started to read when I was about seven, eight, nine years old. My home environment helped me in that way.